History at school was enjoyable, though an ‘O’ level curriculum dominated by spinning jennies and Norfolk four course crop rotation led me to make sheep’s eyes at those in another class whose course focused on foreign policy and warfare. I was very keen on English language and creative writing, which (whilst I often have to discipline my use of language) has proved useful as it’s such a key component of being a ‘practicing’ historian. Even if I’m not particularly good at it, at least I love the writing process. Not everyone does. As perhaps an offshoot of this interest in English language, at school I also became keen on public speaking and debating, and entered competitions around Cornwall and the south west. Often the speeches were historically focused, including one on the British Empire at the age of fifteen.
So, whilst largely unaware of it, it seems as if there was an underlying interest in a field that was to subsequently become central to my career. ‘A’ level History brought modern British political history with an emphasis on foreign policy, as well as the ubiquitous Europe of the dictators, and the Politics ‘A’ level had a good British constitutional history component. But history was certainly not a passion at this stage. That developed in the final year of reading for a Humanities degree at Thames Polytechnic (which became the University of Greenwich in that final year), particularly when empire and decolonization modules came along. These excellent modules, and the opportunity to conduct primary research, stimulated a desire to do graduate work. For my BA dissertation I conducted oral and archival research in London’s docklands in order to write about the 1967 dock strike, decasualization, and the work of Jack Dash and the unofficial Liaison Committee in the Royals group of docks. The British Library’s newspaper library at Colindale provided material for an essay on the British Gazette newspaper published during the 1926 General Strike. In preparing applications for master’s study and British Academy funding, the decision was made to focus on the history of the British Empire, which had begun to fascinate me as I wrote essays on Palestine and the Suez Crisis. That was in 1991/92, and the fascination remains.
2. Who most influenced your academic development?
I have benefited from contact with some of the leading scholars in imperial and wider world history. At Oxford, my master’s was supervised by Colin Newbury, my doctorate by Terence Ranger. Anthony Kirk-Greene was an important influence, as were other Oxford ‘wider world’ historians at the time, such as Judith Brown, John Darwin, and Ian Phimister. The Oxbridge imperial history community and the tradition behind it has been a significant influence. My ‘moral tutor’ at New College, Eric Christiansen, was a memorable and unique influence, as was the New College historian David Parrott. I have benefited greatly from the advice, encouragement, and support of historians such as Tom Buchanan, Tony Hopkins, Ronald Hyam, and Donal Lowry. But perhaps the most important influence was that of the superb history lecturers at Greenwich University, such as Francis Duke, Joan Ryan, and Michael Zell, who always managed to find time to engage with a keen student. Their courses were excellent, and they provided crucial encouragement and support when it came to applying for higher degree study, which was not a frequent occurrence at the time.
I have been influenced in recent years by the staff and students at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, Defence Academy of the United Kingdom (where my King’s College London department is based). This has been most important. Being a ‘normal’ imperial historian, before I arrived here I tended to know about a region or a former colony up until the point of independence. But coming to the Staff College made me much more interested in what happened afterwards, as Britain – it seemed from the activity of the military and other organs of government – was still deeply engaged with so many former imperial regions and countries. This caused me to think, and to a limited extent write, about interaction and engagement after empire.
3. If you hadn’t become a historian what career path would you have chosen?
If I’d been born earlier, a career in the Colonial Service might have appealed (though I probably shouldn’t admit that!). As it was, I was interested as a teenager in some form of ‘public service’ employment. In my last year at school, I had a mild inclination towards the police force. I recently found a computer print-out from late 1986, showing the results from a ‘Cascaid’ career questionnaire. Based on my answers, the computer suggested that I might consider a career as a Personnel Officer, an Employment Adviser, an Immigration Officer or, most interestingly, an Assistant Prison Governor! As a graduate student I flirted with the idea of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or one of the intelligence services, and contemplated the world of merchant banking, but soon developed the desire to remain in the academic world.
Since then, as for many academics, it’s been a case of sticking with it for as long as it lasts. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing – I love being an historian and wouldn’t swap my professional life for any other – but having a flexible attitude is important. It wasn’t until 2005 that I had a permanent job (to the extent that any academic job can ever be regarded as ‘permanent’). After eight years in a fixed-term position at an Oxford college, I was faced, as are so many academics, with the unseemly scramble for another job. Any job, just so long as it covered the bar tab and paid the rent. A temporary position as a lecturer at Oxford Brookes University tided me over as the rejection letters – or rather the institutional silences that stand in their stead these days – mounted. I then became a short-term contract lecturer in my current department, before finally winning a permanent lectureship. Throughout this period, alternative employment was often in my mind. If the academic thing was simply not going to work out, then I would have hoped to find some other avenue involving writing and research, probably supported by a Heath Robinson-ish portfolio of other income streams. Postman appealed, because I thought I could knock off early and get on with other business, as did mystery ‘earn ‘X’ thousand pounds a week’ adverts occasionally spotted at roundabouts.
4. Of your academic projects, which one has proven to be most fulfilling?
I have absolutely loved all of the major projects that I’ve been involved in. There’s nothing more exciting than a new project, the anticipation and planning and development of knowledge and networks. It is one of the reasons why I like moving around a bit rather than sticking to one narrow topic or a single country. The buzz of a new project and the germination of new research ideas are fantastic – the kind of thing that keeps one awake at night and lead to flurries of frenetic activity. Work on the British Empire and the Second World War has been the major project since doctoral days: it’s led to three or four books and a current book project on the whole Indian Ocean region, as well as numerous other spin offs in terms of articles, workshops, etc. Recently, I’ve really enjoyed a venture into imperialism and popular culture which has been tremendously fulfilling and led to a couple of books, as well as a venture into biography.
At the moment, I’m excited by an OUP project on ‘buildings and empire’, and positively drooling at the prospect of writing the ‘British Empire’ volume for the OUP ‘Very Short Introduction’ series. I’ve also a couple of funding bids in or about to go in with the AHRC – one on the social, economic, and cultural impact of the Second World War in South Asia and Iran/Iraq (with Yasmin Khan at Royal Holloway), and another on the impact of the British military around the world ‘beyond the battlefield’. Even if the funding doesn’t come through (how can one expect that it ever would, in this lottery world?), the projects have legs and will be developed in the future, funding or no.
5. Where do you see the field of British history heading in the next few years?
I really don’t feel qualified to say.
6. What advice do you have for graduate students and beginning academics about finding a topic of interest and publishing on it?
I’m tempted to say ‘none’ as graduate students and ‘beginning’ academics are more than capable of finding their own way independent of random advice, and would have far more to teach me than I would them. There’s also the danger of sounding smug and conveying the impression that you think you’ve somehow ‘made’ it. I’m also wary because such advice is overwhelmingly subjective (the remainder being a mixture of perceived common sense and anecdotes drawn from the experiences of others). Just because a particular person has attained a modicum of success (or, more accurately, longevity in paid academic employment) doesn’t necessarily mean that any of the things that he/she did to get there are relevant to anyone else.
Having said all of that, however, I am too weak to resist attempting an answer to the question. So here goes. I think the ‘finding a topic of interest’ bit is pretty obvious. If you can’t find a topic that interests you after you’ve done a bit of history at college or university then you clearly aren’t cut out to be an historian! It’s the next bit that’s the important (and the tricky) element – turning interest into potentially publishable work and carving out a niche as one develops a career. Doing the basic things thoroughly is important – surveying the secondary literature minutely so that one knows where there might be gaps or debates that one can contribute to, and developing the sedimentary layers of knowledge that build up as expertise in a field is developed. It’s also important at this stage to be very tenacious in developing contacts and asking other people working in the field for advice, ideas, and interaction. Approach anyone you think might be able to help, write to every institution that potentially might possess archives or other material of use, and scour funding opportunities using databases such as ‘Research Professional’. I think that it’s essential to find a topic that one can be really passionate about. An industrious and entrepreneurial spirit is most useful as one goes about the many-layered task of researching for a major project, as is a large measure of resilience in order to cope with setbacks and be able to boom on through the times when one’s energy and drive wane.